Tuesday, 24 June 2014


In his autobiography, Out of My Comfort Zone, Steve Waugh wrote that “fielding is a true test of players sacrificing themselves for the interest of the team because it’s the only facet of the game where you don’t get statistically rewarded for your efforts”. True enough, you might reason, but for how much longer? 

In recent columns for ESPNcricinfo, both Daryll Cullinan and Rob Steen argued for a thorough overhaul and renovation of fielding statistics, with the former concluding, in almost antithetical fashion to Waugh, that “it can no longer be ignored that fielding needs a massive statistical boost. If fielding stats are brought in, cricketers will also attach far greater importance to the discipline because of the recognition rewards”. 

It is undeniable that Cullinan’s viewpoint represents the way the world, let alone cricket, is going – abstract quantitative measurement is the fundamental reality of a society geared toward profit, and managerialist performance targets have insinuated themselves into all spheres of modern life, from school grades to hospital waiting times, with systems often creeking under the strain of meeting prescriptive and externally imposed ‘efficiency’ goals. While batting and bowling are readily given individualised statistics, is this inevitable, necessary or even desirable when it comes to fielding, the one area of the game that isn’t an isolated individual undertaking? 

Perhaps, rather than being a simple matter of right and wrong, there is an ‘ideological’ divergence here. Waugh’s position represents a sort of collectivist, socialist view, along the lines of Karl Marx’s dictum: “from each according to his capability, to each according to his needs”. Cullinan’s view might be called ‘liberal individualist’, assuming – in line with the view that ‘rational self-interest’ provides the ‘hidden hand’ bringing macro-order to a market-based society – that individual reward is the only way to incentivise the raising of standards. “Batting and bowling have individual rankings,” he muses, “why can’t fielding have the same? The game and spectator experience can only be enhanced”. Only

Quite apart from this being an awfully pessimistic take on human motivation, it should be pointed out that the great recent fielding innovations – the relay chase, the relay throw, the rugby-style slide-and-offload, the two-man catch – have already happened without individual incentives, through players exploring their own limits for the service of the team. As we shall shortly see, it’s not only that “recognition rewards” haven’t proven necessary to raise standards, therefore; it’s that they can easily interfere with a team’s needs – creating a conflict between team and individual goals – and thus insidiously affect good fielding. 

Although a much more holistic team undertaking than cricket (the team sport played by individuals), football has nonetheless recently seen an upsurge in statistical data. Companies like OPTA measure all sorts of supposedly individual contributions to the collective cause – tackles made, number of key passes, shooting accuracy – these ‘facts’ being extrapolated from their multi-sided context and endowed with dubious significance, as with a concert review that praises the crispness of the cymbal striking without reference to the overall sound. Is a high number of tackles a sign of diligence, physical flexibility, or colleagues' profligacy in possession? 

Aside from effacing the complex causes behind those facets of the game upon which it purportedly casts light, the statistical approach may, through a cockeyed focus on product (‘metric’) rather than process (‘good football’), start to create ‘feedback’. A data analyst tells the head coach, “we need to up our key passes by 23% to give us a statistically more probable chance to win the remaining games”, leading to poor decision-making on the ball. Meanwhile, a striker starts to aim down the middle in order to increase this shooting accuracy figure, despite doing so giving him a statistically smaller chance of scoring than would aiming for the corners and missing a higher proportion of his shots. In short, means (shooting accuracy) become ends, much as Max Weber predicted of the ‘Rational-Bureaucratic Society’. 

It’s not hard to imagine a similar form of feedback affecting the decision-making of fielders in cricket. Already, as a direct result of statistical measures extrapolated from context (i.e. whether they aid winning), both batting and bowling possess such conflicts of interest between team and individual goals – commonly known as ‘red-inking’ and ‘pole-hunting’. 

As for fielding, such performance metrics could easily interfere with the split-second decision-making that connects fielder and midfielder’s modus operandi. That selfless dive for the ball that you have 5% chance of stopping, yet know that the act of diving itself delays and thus prevents the run (cricket’s equivalent of football’s off-the-ball run), may increasingly – though subtly, and perhaps subconsciously (learned behaviour always eventually becomes automatic) – be seen as a risk of a ‘bad mark’ and could inhibit people taking on the improbable and unlikely. (This highlights the paradoxical notion that better fielders may have worse stats because, in attempting more ambitious plays, they make more errors. It also therefore highlights the difficulty of objectively determining what constitutes errors, fumbles and suchlike.)  Steen quotes the philosophy of Mumbai Indians’ fielding coach, Jonty Rhodes: “I am not marking them on the balls that were dropped or the balls that were missed. I am watching for the balls that they haven’t made an effort for”. 

Yet there is also a ‘selfish’ dive, when you have zero percent chance both of stopping the ball and preventing the run (although a higher chance of injury), yet are keen to be seen to be doing the right thing, much as with a set batsman who goes for an unnecessarily aggressive option in a stuttering run-chase in order to ‘show’ how selfless he is, when in fact he’d have best served the team’s interests by toughing it out.

Of course, whether or not this transpires would depend, to a certain extent, on what’s at stake: are performance metrics are a mere TV gimmick or might they be factored into decisions about your place in the team or even your next contract? Responsibility for performance is desirable, but as soon as you start to measure individualised contributions to a collaborative undertaking – a sort of sporting version of ‘Taylorism’, the scientific management of labour – and use those measurements to evaluate players, then you are introducing intra-team competition where co-operation should prevail. 

Indeed, Taylorism used micro-level rivalry to undermine worker solidarity, and fielding metrics will no doubt breed a similar insularity: “I’ve done my bit; spreadsheet says so”. The effect is corrosive. Cullinan proposes measuring fumbles, but you’d soon have fielders angling to get themselves to flatter parts of the outfield: “Skipper, I’ll do third man. I don’t mind, honestly…” It is counter-productive. Striving for a collective exhibition is replaced by personal inhibition

Steen signs off by saying it’s “not about naming and shaming, but acclaiming”, yet the same issues arise even with an ostensibly positive skill like direct hits. There’s already a vast spectrum of difficulty here – factoring in angle to the target and the body position that time affords the fielder – and great cognitive skill in that split-second, death-overs risk/reward calculation of whether a shy at the stumps is worthwhile, depending on the danger a batsman poses (either how set he is, or potential destructiveness). Surely, you don’t want players subconsciously incentivised into ponderousness and deliberation. 

Yet the fundamental problem with individualised fielding stats is that the game of cricket – all team sport – is about intangible, unquantifiable relations and human traits, chief among which is generosity. Looking out for your mates. Putting everything you have in the pot before you measure it, which is the true meaning of “from each according to his capabilities…” A team will appreciate an awkward fielder’s commitment and budget for his shortcomings, whereas proposals like those of Cullinan sketches out for the same fielder a pre-emptively defensive mindset: “Well, this is what I contributed. I did my bit”. 

Generosity of spirit is manifested in myriad ways: helping a bowler through a tough period with the ball; staying upbeat at 450 for 3; supporting a skipper who’s just dropped two catches; not reacting histrionically when dismissed by a ball that misbehaves out of the desire for everyone to understand that you’ve been unlucky. These are all ‘jobs’ that need doing, that are largely unseen and certainly elude quantification – “affective labour”, as it’s sometimes called, like child-rearing – but that may translate to runs, wickets and victories further down the line. Not everything valuable can be measured. 

It’s easy to see from other walks of life how, by submitting fielding to the harsh and not fully illuminating spotlight of individualised metrics (thus compounding the intrinsic loneliness of batting and bowling), the engendering of greater insularity and ‘rational self-interest’ – particularly as T20 itinerancy and freelancing erode the team cultures forged through hours of what Ed Smith calls the “small acts of kindness” – all that may also contribute to the growing list of cricketers afflicted by mental health problems. Stress is our modern illness – along with corruption, the predominant cricketing narrative of the age, an age of swelling backroom teams, micromanagement, and ‘soft’ surveillance – and it’s illogical to bemoan the increasing psychological strain that players find themselves at the same time as advocating having their every fielding move computed. 

All cricketers know that winning a tight game in the field together is the ultimate. It provides that fleeting communion – not illusory, despite what Steve Archibald said, even if fluctuating – and liberating ego-loss so often denied by our human condition: individual bodies, interior voice, internalised worries. The selfless, ‘swarm’ activity of fielding offers an escape from that, promising the joy of collective achievement beyond measure. Nothing would burst that bubble – fray that social fabric – faster than a fielding spreadsheet.